Word of the Day: Pelican

September 30, 2011 in Word of the Day

Many of the colleges that make up Cambridge University, founded in more pious times, have religious names: Trinity, St John’s, Peterhouse (as in ‘The House of Saint Peter’, and thus never to be called ‘Peterhouse College’), and others are all more or less recognisable as institutions that once taught theology above all else. The most obvious examples of the phenomenon are, of course, Christ’s College and Jesus College, but coming in a not so distant third place is the only college founded by the citizens of Cambridge (in 1352 following a plague outbreak), Corpus Christi. The College name translates as ‘the body of Christ’, and the college symbol is a pelican. Believe it or not, there is a method in this unusual symblic alignement of our Saviour and the seaside-dwelling avian, as revealed by Laertes’ words in Hamlet:

LAERTES To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.

With these words, the hot-blooded lord promises cooperation with the friends of his murdered father (such as Claudius), even as he plots brutal revenge on his father’s murderer, Hamlet. The idea of the pelican wounding itself to feed and sustain its young, perhaps the result of the peculiar way in which the bird will hold its beak-pouch when regurgitating food for its infants, makes for an image of self-sacrifice that dates back to medieval texts. The self-sacrificing pelican, supposedly giving up its blood, imitates Jesus giving up his life, having offered his blood and body in the form of bread and wine to his believers at the Last Supper.

We find the Christian-avian overlap elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works: King Lear reverses the trope when he points to a noticeable lack of Christian charity in his “pelican daughters”, trying to drain him dry; elsewhere, John of Gaunt (near to death at the start of Richard II) accuses the King with another bitter reference to the “life-rendering pelican”:

GAUNT O! spare me not, my brother Edward’s son,
For that I was his father Edward’s son.
That blood already, like the pelican,
Hast thou tapp’d out, and drunkenly carous’d

Here one may draw out similarities between Richard’s improper treatment of Gaunt and the improper use made of the blood (or wine) of the pelican (or Christ). Given the strength of the association between pelicans and divinity in the medieval period, as evinced by Corpus Christi College’s heraldry, and given the fact that the historical John of Gaunt (brother to the Earl of Cambridge) died in February 1399, one may even say that this pelican, so odd to modern, secular ears, even adds a bit of period colour to this Elizabethan play

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